Labeling theory is a theory to understand deviance in the society, this theory is focused more on trying to understand how people react to behavior that happens around them and label it as ‘deviant’ or ‘nondeviant’. This theory was given by Howard Becker who tried to understand, not in the causes behind the deviant behavior but rather which behavior was considered ‘deviant’ and what impact it had on the individual engaging in that behavior.
Thus he said that no behavior was intrinsically deviant, the society or the group put the label of ‘deviant’ on the behavior. People may have different reactions to the same behavior depending on the social context in which that behavior is carried out, this may also include the location of the person, e.g. the consumption of beef or even the acquiring of beef is considered illegal in some states of India due to the ‘beef ban’, however in countries like the United States or Australia consuming beef is considered to be normal and legal and there is no ban against it, in this case the consumption of beef may become a ‘deviant’ act for which there may be consequences, but in the US it is not. Thus the social context in which the action is carried out plays a great role in labeling the action.
Furthermore, we may also find that sometimes more than the action people may be labeled as being deviant and we may view them through that judgment. Once labeled deviant it becomes hard to get rid of the label due to the fact that it becomes a part of our master status and thus influences the way people behave with those who have been labeled as deviant. Moreover, it also affects the way we view our selves and has an impact on the self-identity, our self-concept, this is due to the fact that we often shape our opinions about our selves based on how others are viewing us. We carry this label with us everywhere, for e.g. if one stole money from someone else’s bank account or indulged in identity fraud and was caught and an official report was filed against him and he had to spend some time in prison, this person will now be labeled as deviant. When further this person goes to apply for a job they will have to mention it in his application and will be judged to a large extent based on the same.
There are two kinds of deviance that are recognized; primary and secondary. These become important to understand as they were given as an extension of Howard’s theory by Edwin Lemert.
Primary deviance refers to those acts which receive a little reaction from the society and do not have long term consequences, e.g. when while playing cricket a child may break a window or a vase.
Secondary deviance, on the other hand, refers to acts that are labeled by the society as deviant and attached to one’s identity thus affecting one’s self-concept.
What is labeled as deviant depends on the legal forces of the society and the law that the society entails, thus what is labeled as deviant will differ from society to society?